Home > Skyhunter (Skyhunter #1)

Skyhunter (Skyhunter #1)
Author: Marie Lu

1

 

The morning dawns with both sun and rain. Drizzle drifts in the sunbeams, dewing everything with a shimmer of light.

A storm is moving in. We need to finish our sweep early.

Cool wind streams my coat behind me as I head toward our defense compound’s main gates. We are at the warfront fifty miles from the steel walls of Newage, Mara’s capital, out where our southern mountain ranges give way to dense forests and valleys.

The other sides of Mara are protected by sheer cliffs rising a thousand feet above the ocean, natural formations supposedly caused hundreds of years ago by a cataclysmic earthquake—but here in the south, we are vulnerable to attacks from the Karensa Federation, whose vast territory now extends up to the other side of the pass. They send their Ghosts to wander this in-between land, trying to find a weak spot in our border. So we do a silent sweep every morning, killing any Ghosts we encounter.

It has been a month since the Federation launched a full-scale attack against us, which we barely survived with a temporary cease-fire. But compromise is difficult when what they want is our nation itself. So the next siege could come today. Tomorrow. A month from now. There is no telling.

When you’re fighting a losing war, you are always on edge.

Morning light has turned the sky a bruised pink by the time I arrive at the edge of our compound. As I walk, I notice the metalworkers bustling around their stations, the seasilk trim of their hats trembling in the wind.

“It’s the Basean,” one of them says with a sneer.

Another lifts an eyebrow at me. “Still alive, huh, little rat? Well, if you die before Tuesday, I’ll still win my bet.”

Words like these used to stick in my chest until it hurt to breathe. I’d turn my head down in shame and scurry past. But my mother always told me to keep my chin up. Look proud, she would say to me as she patted my cheek, until you feel it.

So now I wink back and smile a secret smile.

The metalworker looks away, annoyed that his barb didn’t hook me. I stand straighter and continue down the path without a word.

I haven’t spoken out loud since the night my mother and I first fled to Mara’s borders, when a Federation shell of poison gas permanently scarred the flaps of my vocal cords. I was eight years old at the time. My memories of that night are inconsistent—some clear as crystal, others nothing more than a blur of soldiers and the light of fires engulfing homes. I can’t remember what happened to my father. I don’t know where our neighbors went.

I think my mind has buried most of those memories, shrouded them in haze to protect me. That night left my mother with a head full of snow-white hair. I came out of it with no more voice and scar tissue twisting the inner lining of my throat. To this day, I’m not sure if I can’t speak because of those scars or because of the trauma of our escape, of what I witnessed the Federation doing to our people. Perhaps it’s both. All I know is that when I open my mouth, what’s left is silence.

I suppose I now make use of that silence. In my line of work, at least, it is essential for survival.

That was what first drew me to the Strikers. When I was small, I would join the crowds to watch the famed patrols head out past Newage’s walls, ready to face the Federation’s monsters. They are Mara’s most elite branch of soldiers, revered by everyone, notorious even in other nations. My eyes would shine at the elaborate harnesses looped around their shoulders and waist, their guns and knives and black steel armguards, the masks covering their mouths, the circular emblem embroidered on their sapphire seasilk coats that draped down to their boots.

I loved their silence. I loved that it meant survival to them. They moved like shadows, with no sound except the hush of boots against the ground. I would linger there, balanced on the branch of a tree, transfixed by their lethal grace until they had disappeared from view.

Now I’m one of them.

It is less glamorous when you are the one riding toward death. Still, it’s a job that means I can afford to put food on my mother’s table and a roof over her head.

Other Strikers are at the gate now, ready for our sweep. Corian Wen Barra, my Shield, is already here, his back turned to me. Dew shines in the high knot of his hair, and a breeze pushes against his coat’s hem.

I’d heard him leave his room this morning when I was still under my furs. He moves so lightly that no one else would have noticed the hush of his door closing.

As always, the sight of him settles my nerves. I’m safe here. I tap his shoulder as I reach him, then give him a mock frown and sign to him, “You left without me.”

Corian looks sidelong at me. He clutches his heart, as if I’ve wounded him. “What—and leave little Talin to fend for herself? I would never,” he signs, his gestures teasing and light.

“But?” I sign back.

“But they were serving fresh fishcakes this morning.”

“Did you at least save me one?”

“I did, but then I had to eat it because you took so long.”

I roll my eyes. He just laughs before he reaches into the pouch at his belt and tosses me a cake, still hot, wrapped in cloth. I catch it easily in one hand. My belly growls on cue.

Corian laughs again. “Look at you, nimble as a deer this morning.”

I shrug at him before biting down on the cake’s tender meat. Savory juices flood my mouth, along with the grit of minnow egg in the center. When I finish, I let out an exaggerated breath and grin. “Nimble and starving,” I answer him.

“‘Thank you for saving me breakfast, Corian’?” he suggests.

I gesture to him with greasy fingers. “You’re welcome for my company, Corian.”

All Strikers work in pairs. We are bonded until death from the moment we take our oath. Corian and I have trained together, have fought side by side, have been able to guess each other’s thoughts since we were twelve. I’m more a sister to him than his blood sisters. When I move, he watches my back. When I lead, he follows. I do the same for him in return. Our lives are intertwined, one indivisible from the other.

He is my Shield, what we call our Striker partner. I am his.

We’re a strange pairing. Corian and I have always been opposites in everything. He is the thirdborn—wen—son of the Barra family, one of the wealthiest in Newage. His appearance is golden in every way. When he laughs, he leans into it with his entire body, a constantly shifting mosaic of strong lines. It’s the kind of aura that you can’t help but be drawn toward. People buzz around him at holiday banquets, all eager to be seen chatting with him.

My full name is Talin Kanami. I’m a refugee from Basea, a nation south of Mara that fell to the Federation ten years ago. My skin is light brown, my eyes green and slender and long lashed, my hair so black that it shines blue, like a slick of oil in the light.

I’m proud of my Basean features, but many in Mara call refugees like me rats. The Maran Senate has banned us from serving in the Striker patrols. I’m here only because Corian asked the Firstblade to make an exception for me.

Now that we’ve eaten, Corian and I do our routine weapons check, making sure our blades are fresh and bullet chambers are loaded.

“Daggers,” he calls out.

I run my fingers against the hilts of mine, then tug once on the harnesses looped securely around my shoulders. We each carry a dozen daggers: six strapped across our chests in a bandolier; two against the harnesses around each thigh; and one tucked along each boot.

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